Diane Ravitch Doesn’t Understand EdTech Entrepreneurism


part of the solutionI really try my best not to read what Diane Ravitch writes. I usually disagree with her and I find her to be quite inflammatory, and not in a good way.

But this time I feel like I really need to speak up.

Ravitch wrote a piece for Scientific American that appears in the July 31, 2013 edition, which is already available on the website. In the article, entitled “3 Dubious Uses of Technology in Schools,” she criticizes three major developments in ed tech: online virtual schools, automatic grading of essays and the storage of student personal data in the cloud.

To be fair, these are three areas that are relatively new to education and I don’t think anyone has claimed that any of them has been perfected or doesn’t have room to evolve. But Ravitch, in what I have come to think of as her “typical” fashion, grossly oversimplifies the issues and, instead of writing a helpful piece about how these technologies could be improved upon and grown, just presents them as detrimental.

I don’t have a dog in this hunt, as I don’t work for a virtual school, an essay grading company or a cloud data provider. But I am an ed tech entrepreneur and Ravitch’s general negativity and broad criticisms really irritate me. Here is how she wrapped up her article in Scientific American:

Here is the conundrum: teachers see technology as a tool to inspire student learning; entrepreneurs see it as a way to standardize teaching, to replace teachers, to make money and to market new products. Which vision will prevail?

Again, we see a very polarizing statement, suggesting a grand struggle of good versus evil, a common theme for Ravitch. It’s not unusual, in my opinion, for her conclusions to be very black and white, rarely leaving room for the nuance that most thinking people recognize is in most situations. And these characterizations are unfair. From three examples of ed tech areas that are still evolving, she reaches the conclusion that the goal of entrepreneurs is to use technology to standardize teaching and replace teachers (a common scare tactic). It’s a leap and such a broad generalization that I found it shocking, even for her.

I’m an ed tech entrepreneur. I also have a doctorate in Educational Psychology and am a trained Instructional Designer. I’ve spent my whole career working with teachers and students. I am not some Johnny-come-lately who sees edtech as a quick way to make a buck. And the reason I am starting my business, Balefire Labs, is because I talk to teachers (and parents) all the time who struggle with using technology as a tool for student learning.  They can’t find high quality educational apps that help their kids learn. There are tons of junky educational apps out there that are carelessly slapped together and have misleading marketing claims.  Teachers, in particular, don’t have the time to spend searching through tens of thousands of apps and they don’t want to waste money purchasing apps that don’t teach.

The whole point with entrepreneurism is that the entrepreneur must align his or her visions with solutions for their customers. If those visions are at odds with one another then the customers won’t buy the product, plain and simple. It is not possible for an entrepreneur’s vision to “prevail” if the product they offer is something the customers don’t want. The customer is in charge.

My customers ARE teachers and parents and I’m trying to help them solve a problem they have. In fact, if I don’t solve a problem for them then my business won’t be successful. In short, I am not trying to standardize teaching or replace teachers. Do I need to make money and market new products? Well, I do if I want to continue to help teachers and parents! It seems crazy to me that a criticism of entrepreneurs is that they want to make money and market products. How else does a business survive? But helping customers (and in the case of edtech this means both teachers and students) and having a successful business are not mutually exclusive. They can’t be! Because having a successful business is dependent on helping customers!

I don’t really understand why Ravitch doesn’t like ed tech entrepreneurs or how she came to the conclusion that we are enemies of teachers. I’d be willing to bet that most ed tech entrepreneurs see themselves as allies of teachers, not enemies. But I do think Ravitch’s opinion pieces would be much more meaningful (and impactful) if they offered constructive feedback to entrepreneurs. If she thinks there is a gap between what entrepreneurs are offering, what actually improves students’ learning outcomes and what teachers find useful, why not pitch in and be part of the solution instead of just criticizing from her position as an education pundit?

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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11 Responses to Diane Ravitch Doesn’t Understand EdTech Entrepreneurism

  1. vinnycho says:

    Reblogged this on Datapulted and commented:
    Love this. There’s so much more to think about here! Something that has been on my mind: Technologies, especially those for student data, become the windows through which teachers see (or fail to see) about students. On a milder level, that’s probably something that old school text books and teacher guides did. But technologies (and accountability) have changed the conditions around that process. So, edtech isn’t to blame. Instead, we need to look around at ourselves (school leaders and community members). Are we having meaningful conversations about what teaching and learning really mean? Do we make sure that our technologies and practices reflect those values?

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks, Vinny. I agree that those conversations have to be had. I just resent entrepreneurs being painted with such a broad brush. Completely counterproductive, in my opinion.

  2. Gerry Swan says:

    Sure her statement does not apply to many (including myself), but DR may be on to something. My advisor Glenn Bull used to say tech will be used to transform curriculum & learning or micro manage it. I think the latter is ahead (e.g. The tech infusion being seen in most schools is being driven by online high stakes testing).

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks for commenting, Gerry. I guess I don’t agree with your advisor either! Lol! Micromanagement is not an outcome of technology itself. Technology has capabilities that can be used for micromanagement, perhaps. But it is the customers who purchase technology products that vote with their dollars for the capabilities they want in technology products.

      As far as the tech infusion in most schools being driven by online high stakes testing, I haven’t seen any data to support such an assertion. Do you have research references you could share to that effect? Everything that I have read asserts that schools invest in technology because they want to increase student engagement and the like. If you have some other citations, I would definitely like to check them out. That said, even if the assertion were true that tech infusion in most schools was being driven by online high stakes testing, how can edtech entrepreneurs be held responsible for that? Edtech entrepreneurs, just like every other segment of business, can only sell products that customers buy. It seems silly to pit entrepreneurs against teachers.

  3. Gerry Swan says:

    I don’t have any research references to share on testing driving technology purchases, but I would ask who are the customers? Is the big dollar tech being spent to help teachers or students (or is it about accountability)? My statement is an observation based on the amount of time I spend in the field. That is my speculation as is your piece based on your experience. If this about peer reviewed research, where are your references? Wether technology is responsible is not the point I was trying to make. I was trying to point out that technology is being leveraged to drive the accountability/testing movement and that many entrepreneurs are seeing that. By the official definition meth dealers are entrepreneurs, so the term does not denote some high ground. Many major entrepreneurs in the “ed reform” arena seem to be in the testing accountability arena. My guess is that DR comments were leveled at the big guns of ed tech/ed reform (maybe you are a big player, I consider myself a minor figure).

  4. karen mahon says:

    Gerry, I didn’t mean to offend you. I was sincerely interested in whether or not you knew of any research about testing driving technology adoption. I’m sorry if that came across as confrontational. You’re right, I don’t have data to say that adoption is NOT because of high stakes testing.

    I am not a major player either. And I agree that the term entrepreneur does not denote some high ground. But I still don’t understand the criticism against major players who provide technology that could be used for teacher accountability efforts. Should entrepreneurs not create products that can be used for testing because of some moral high ground that a segment of the ed reform movement claims? That doesn’t make sense to me.

    You are probably correct that Ravitch’s comments were aimed at the big guns. But that’s my problem with her to begin with: She makes broad, sweeping criticisms, seemingly to generate attention. If she doesn’t mean to criticize all edtech entrepreneurs then she should be more specific.

  5. Gerry Swan says:

    I was pushing the conversation Karen (not offended). I think this is important dialogue and requires passionate, but malleable thought from multiple perspectives of an issue. Companies that latch on to the narratives generated various reform movements are not neutral (I sure as hell am not), so we should all own it and put it out on the table if we are really going to help the ultimate end user (the student). I originally commented on this because Vincent Cho tweeted this and we both have interests in data systems. I think most data systems are aimed at the “distal” use rather than the “proximal” use (Argyris, 1982), because that’s who controls the budget. Ideally we should serve both, but I think we are far from that in terms of tech and policy.

  6. jennygrantrankin says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Karen. I’m 100% with you that statements like “entrepreneurs see it as a way to standardize teaching, to replace teachers” are offensive, not to mention misguided and an oversimplification that doesn’t help any valid problems that do exist with some edtech companies. Our family’s edtech company is a company of teachers (I spent the bulk of my career as a teacher, site admin, and district admin; my husband was a teacher, site admin, and county dept. of ed. admin; both of us won Teacher of the Year; the company employs teachers; etc.). Most of that time was spent in the role of Teacher. My dissertation is focused entirely on ways edtech can improve to better support educators. There are many other educators like me working in edtech, and I hate to see such polarizing efforts to relegate edtech to the role of “bad guy.” I’ve written articles on problems with edtech, so it’s not like I think edtech is perfect, but (as you mention) replacing generalizations with ways edtech can better serve educators would be more helpful for everyone involved. I understand the intention is a good one, so I hope Ravitch can find more ways to work with people who aren’t really “the enemy.”

    • karen mahon says:

      Thanks, Jenny! I hate for claims like Ravitch’s to cause teachers and parents to immediately look at entrepreneurs like you and me with suspicion. It’s hard enough to run your own business without having someone (who, theoretically, is on the same side) casting aspersions about our intentions. I appreciate your chiming in!

  7. I’m glad you raised this, Karen. Although there are so many complex issues tangled up here I don’t even know where to start.

    So I won’t.

    Let me just say that Ravitch might have a loud megaphone, but at the end of the day she doesn’t actually build anything. And she evidently doesn’t know much about entrepreneurialism or entrepreneurs. She’s deeply ignorant on these matters.

    But ignorance is, of course, not a fault in and of itself. Ravitch’s dramatic flaw – and it is one – is that she doesn’t respect her own ignorance.

    I think the right response to this kind of noise is to just keep building better ed tech tools that empower teachers and learners.

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